Two state senators from Calcasieu Parish and 18 of their colleagues pulled off a major political upset here this week. They derailed a plan to split Calcasieu into two congressional districts.
Gov. Bobby Jindal supported the division of Calcasieu.
Actually, the governor wasn’t in Baton Rouge at the time. And there was some irony there, too. Jindal happened to be in Lake Charles speaking to the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.
The governor doesn’t have to be here to get things done. Most of the political maneuvering is handled behind the scenes by Timmy Teepell, Jindal’s chief of staff who enjoys almost as much stroke as the governor himself.
Teepell bleeds Republican blood, and has gone all out to save the seats of two GOP congressmen in north Louisiana. He saw nothing wrong with having 28,739 of the 192,768 citizens of Calcasieu Parish being represented by a congressman from Shreveport.
The 39 members of the Senate got a note early Tuesday from the governor’s office saying, “Please support Senate Bill 24 by Sen. (Neil) Riser. Follow the author’s lead on supporting or opposing any proposed amendments.”
Two didn’t cave
Legislators don’t usually take those notes lightly. Louisiana governors have too much power to give them short shrift.
Fortunately for Calcasieu Parish, Sens. Dan “Blade” Morrish, RJennings, and Willie Mount, D-Lake Charles, had other ideas. They weren’t going to sit idly by and see the parish they represent victimized for political gain.
This isn’t the first time Calcasieu Parish officials have felt the strong hand of Jindal’s chief of staff meddling in parish affairs. Teepell wanted the members of the Lake Charles Port Board to settle out of court when they were sued by the West Cameron Port Board.
The Port of Lake Charles owned land in Cameron where Sempra located its LNG plant. Teepell wanted port board members to give in to Cameron’s demands and sell that land to Sempra. Like Morrish and Mount, they resisted the arm-twisting.
What is surprising in this latest congressional redistricting situation is the fact that Jindal, Teepell and the state Republican Party are willing to sacrifice one of two GOP congressmen in south Louisiana in order to save two Republican U.S. representatives in north Louisiana.
U.S. Reps. Charles Boustany, RLafayette, and Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, will have to run against one another under redistricting plans that have survived to this point.
Morrish and Mount turned in masterful performances in their defense of Calcasieu Parish.
The people in the southwestern and northwestern parts of the state are all citizens of Louisiana, Morrish said.
“What else do they have in common?” he asked.
Morrish then turned away from the Senate microphone and walked around a congressional map, saying nothing. A minute or so later he returned to the mike.
“I can’t think of many things because I think there aren’t many,” he said.
Putting part of Calcasieu Parish in a congressional district based 200 miles away is an injustice, Morrish said.
Mount talked about people — not party politics — being the most important consideration in redistricting. However, she said they were being overlooked in order to save the seats of two north Louisiana congressmen.
Issues in coastal parishes are much different from those in the northern part of the state, she said. She added that U.S. representatives from the Gulf Coast better understand the complexities of preserving that area.
“Our constituents demand that we stay together,” Mount said.
Rep. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, was in the Senate chamber during the debate trying to round up support for the Calcasieu cause.
Sen. Riser, R-Columbia, was caught by surprise when he got only 19 votes for his legislation. It takes 20 to pass a bill in the 39-member Senate.
Senators then moved quickly to amend a bill by Sen. Lydia Jackson, DShreveport, that kept Southwest Louisiana parishes intact. It passed 23-15 with the support of seven Republicans.
Unfortunately, that bill was rejected Wednesday by the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. The vote was 9 for and 10 against. Reps. Danahay and Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, members of the committee, voted for the bill.
One bill OK’d
Other congressional redistricting legislation is out there, but only one bill has cleared the House. Riser’s bill will resurface on the Senate floor today, but there are indications it will keep Calcasieu whole in a Southwest Louisiana district linked to Lafayette.
The House bill is sponsored by Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge, and is scheduled to be heard by the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee after the Senate adjourns today.
That legislation keeps Calcasieu Parish whole but splits Jeff Davis in a new 3rd Congressional District. Other parishes in that district are Acadia, Cameron, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Mary and Vermilion parishes and parts of Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes.
Jeff Davis would have 24,083 residents in the 3rd District and 7,511 in the 4th Congressional District based in Shreveport.
The Ponti measure keeps two congressional districts in north Louisiana, and a spokesman for Gov. Jindal said he supports that bill.
Calcasieu Parish is safe at the moment, but the situation changes from hour to hour.
Whatever happens, the citizens of Calcasieu can thank Morrish and Mount for waging an emotional and effective fight for the people of the parish. Their pleas for fairness were heard loud and clear by their Senate colleagues.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].